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In the Spotlight

Monday, September 13, 2010

Solar Training

Walking up to Bldg. 5, Residential Construction, I see a little house with the lights on, there’s a radio playing. Straining to hear, I wonder if it’s something like the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” No, that would be too coincidental.

It’s the Zero-Energy House, sustained by a solar array, that soaks up the sun and turns it into energy. Instructor Dan Smith explains, “Net zero energy means this solar shack, as we call it, produces as much energy as it uses. We have plans to use grant funding to build a larger version, between 800 and 1,000 sq. ft. It would have a classroom area where we could put on presentations for any college or group that wants to learn about zero energy and green, sustainable building. CPTC will be the ‘go to’ center in the area on sustainability.”
Sustainable Building Science Instructor Dan Smith (below, right) and Weatherization Instructor Josh Kolman will be teaching courses in the fall dealing with solar basics, which will include photovotaics (PV) and solar hot water. Both have participated in three months of training made available by the Department of Energy so that they could train others to install solar.

For those who would say, “Yeah, right, solar in Washington State…” The technology is feasible for the entire country, not just sunny locations such as Arizona. Josh explained, “The technology has come a long ways over the last 20 years and they can actually produce energy on less sunlight.”

The government offers rebates and there are energy incentives available to customers who have solar that can go toward paying for the system to be installed. In addition, the power companies buy power back from solar producers. Most utility companies participate in a net metering system or a rebate system. Puget Sound Energy, Puget Power, and Tacoma Power have a rebate system that starts out at 18 cents per kilowatt hour. Washington-made solar equipment, with an inverter, make the incentive go up a little more. With Washington-made solar equipment on your home, there’s a rebate of 54 cents per kilowatt hour. Not bad, considering you’re buying energy for around 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

A one-quarter class on solar basics will be offered in the fall for do-it-yourselfers to learn theory, orientation, design, and implementation of solar energy to their home. The class is also ideal for electricians who want to widen their repertoire. In fact, a homeowner may want to work collaboratively with an electrician or solar contractor to be sure the system operates in an efficient and safe manner.

Josh said, “And it doesn’t have to be a huge whole-house system. You can do a smaller system, such as a back-up for well pumps when inclement weather knocks out power and disables your well, for example. A small system can run a well pump and maybe pick up a few items like the lighting circuits or a couple of plug circuits, like for the fridge.”

Considering that such outages usually occur in the winter storm months, it’s reassuring to know that the battery system is capable of storing energy from sunnier times for use when there’s virtually no sunshine. Central Washington has an average of six peak hours of sun a day. Western Washington has about four hours, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you reside in Germany, they have 3.7 hours, and solar energy is huge there – the biggest in the world. Partly because of subsidies and partly because the Germans saw the transition to solar coming, it’s been a work in progress for 20 years.

It helps that the Obama administration is putting a lot of money into supporting sustainable alternative energy here in the U.S.

Dan and Josh walked me over to the side of the Zero Energy House and showed me the electrical apparatus that takes solar power and turns it into electricity.

Dan explained, “DC current is produced in the solar array, and then it’s brought over to a charge controller, which takes the DC current and puts it into a current that a bank of four large square batteries understands. It charges the batteries – right now we’re pushing 28 volts, in order to charge them up – then it goes into the inverter, which takes the DC current and inverts it to AC. From the inverter, the electricity goes to the AC subpanel, and from there it feeds the little Zero Energy House.” There’s more – grounding; volting; amperage; how to commission; turning it on, turning it off; how to isolate each part so that if you want to work on a part, you won’t be zapped – in a nutshell, that’s it.

Dan summed things up by saying, “While we’d be the first to tell you this class is important and timely, before you start checking into solar, remember: conservation before solarization. You can save yourself quite a bit on your electrical bill by using less hot water, investing in adequate insulation to prevent heat loss, and otherwise conserving to use less energy.”

Dianne Bunnell
Clover Park Technical College
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